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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The (Anti)fragility of our schools

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Echoing with the same sentiment, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder introduces us to the idea that “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack this idea by considering three everyday objects: a china vase, a brick, and a human muscle. Each one, according to Taleb, responds differently to disorder and when subjected to stress. A china vase is fragile and easily breaks into pieces when dropped on the floor. A brick, by contrast, is robust and can withstand a considerable amount of stress and pressure. At the same time, it can hardly be said to “thrive” under pressure and will itself crumble when faced with a huge or unexpected strike. A human muscle, by contrast, is, in Taleb’s words, antifragile in that not only can it withstand a degree of stress, it actually benefits from it and becomes stronger as a result.

Caught up in a midst of a global pandemic, with all of the volatility and disorder that it has brought in its wake, there is no doubt that the landscape of education has been altered and that some schools were always going to be too fragile to survive the shock of Covid-19. Many others have survived only by drawing deep into human, financial and other resources. A few, I would argue, are beginning to discover that it is not just about weathering the storm, but that there is the possibility of growing, changing - even thriving - under these conditions.

A photograph of a man sitting on a rock with waves crashing around him
Taleb: The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations.

But what are the conditions under which we can help our schools become antifragile? Taleb’s book is intentionally non-linear, so he hasn’t exactly provided us with an off-the-shelf manual. At the same time there are clues and here are just three that I picked up along the way to get the conversation going.

1.Beware the Fragilistas. The Fragilista, Taleb explains, is to someone to be avoided. Often found in meetings, they cause fragility by their naive rationalism. They are constantly writing policies and generating actions, the benefits of which are small and invisible. In doing so, they deprive “variability-loving systems of variability and error-loving systems of errors.” The Fragilisita, Taleb concludes, knows the cause and effect of everything - at least, that is what they think - but tends to create systems that crumble when an inevitable surprise comes their way.

Discussion question: If schools truly are “error-loving systems”, rooted in the idea than failure is a critical part of the learning process, what are things that are starving these systems of oxygen?

2. Avoid the tourist trap, become a flâneur. Taleb dislikes tourists, but only for the fact that their formulaic approach to adventure is so one dimensional and blindingly goal-driven. Touristification sets in, he says, when we become prisoners of our plans and stop learning from what is right in front of our eyes or from occasionally taking a different turn. The “rational flâneur” (flâneur, someone who wanders around observing), by contrast, is someone who, unlike the tourist, is happy and confident enough to go off course and, at every step, is ready to revise and adjust his schedule based on new information. The tourist has designed the route and has a predetermined end in mind. The flâneur is simply tinkering. And tinkering, he concludes, always outperforms design.

Discussion question: What are the plans in place that may be stopping you from discovering other alternative routes and alternative futures?

3. Don’t deny a bird the opportunity to fly. Taleb quotes Baudelaire’s sad poem about the albatross to make the point that what is made to fly will not do well trapped on the ground. In the same way, he says, organisations need volatility (volare, to fly) to succeed. By insisting on locking everything down, always taking the smooth path, and leaving nothing to chance, not only do we remove that element of luck that is so critical in the process of human discovery, we make ourselves fragile and more vulnerable to future volatile events.

Discussion question: What is the level of risk that your school is comfortable taking and where might this be making you vulnerable to future volatile events?

Only a few weeks into a new school year, the final words in Taleb’s remarkable book offer us comfort: “The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations.” Modernity has tended to avoid volatility at all costs. So have many schools, making them ultimately more fragile than we had realised.

At the same time, if we find ourselves right now being tossed around by the turbulent waters of a pandemic, constantly adjusting our course only to survive, that may just be a sign that we are going to emerge out of this much stronger than at first we ever would have thought.


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